Phew! Another long and dramatic off-season is in the rear-view mirror.
It’s a relief for all fans to get back to business.
Now, can we please let the fun and games begin?
I’m all for that, but before we can move more comfortably into season 2019, it behoves this column to try to make some sense of what happened these past four months.
To start let me pose a question: is it the case that no other professional players from soccer, rugby union or AFL flouted convention or broke the law these past few months? I don’t recall any. Do you? Is that because those codes have players with greater self-control and respect, while a very few league players are louts or worse?
Or, has league somehow ceded greater influence to the fourth estate, relative to other codes, to the detriment of its image?
Its own worst enemy, so to say.
Todd Greenberg’s lamentably timed decision to announce the banning of players two weeks ago for “serious” alleged offences, before the ink was even in the pen, is a case in point.
Pressured by the shock jocks, clubland and assorted influencers about town, something had to be seen to be done. The pitchforks were being sharpened.
The double whammy for the NRL in all their haste was the unintended confirmation that any “player partnership” myth is exactly that, having sought no consultation nor engagement with the RLPA on this significant change-up in policy. To say the players are pissed is an understatement.
However, like the recent thought-bubble from the NRL about a 10-team finals format, it's an unnecessary distraction from the main issue.
Don’t get me wrong. A few grown men were involved in matters for which they must answer. Things don’t bode well for a couple, yet the coverage of events over the summer has bordered on prejudicial in the more serious matters and consistently insensitive. But I digress.
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“Hang on, Butts,” I hear you say. "This is not about Greenberg or the media. It’s about entitled big boys behaving badly. Players are celebrities on big money. Role models for our youth.”
Different standards apply when protecting the image of a game that generates billions. Negative media impacts public appeal like rugby studs on the SCG turf.
Following this logic, the newly invoked player-punishment regime and NRL rule change seemed a reasonable reaction, if ill-timed.
After all, NRL clubs, as the employer, have every right to act to protect the commercial and cultural links that sustain. Indeed, they’re obliged to do little else.
Overarching as the head franchisor, the NRL needs also to respond to the travails of their franchisees.
This all works of course, until talk turns to dollars.
It’s then that the rights of the individual, over the collective-corporate good, can become like a pebble in the game's boot.
By way of example, last week before the Jack de Belin case was heard in the Federal Court, the usual suspects were in a keyboard lather.
One columnist even declared that the benchmark of "innocent until proven otherwise" should now be viewed as some sort of cop-out or “convenient narrative”.
I wonder if lessons have been forgotten after the injustice of Coffs Harbour in 2004, Dane Tilse in 2005 and the Brett Stewart stitch-up of 2009.
Watch this space. But let’s get to the footy.
SO, what about those Knights?
Some say it's the most-anticipated crusade since the club's first season. Things get serious on Friday night against my pick for a top-four spot, the Cronulla Sharks, led by former Knight, Johnny Morris.
Expectation is high in the dressing room and grandstands, with the sweet scent of redemption wafting through the nostrils of those few to survive the gory days of three wooden spoons.
Back of house, Nathan Brown and his staff have seen nine new additions to the brains trust. A significant but necessary changing of the guard.
On the field, according to ever-understated director of football, Brian Canavan, a 67 per cent change to the top 35 players list from 2018 demands a “one game at a time” mentality.
“Let’s see where we’re at after round one”, was the most you’d get out of this wily veteran.
That's only natural, with so many new bodies, new positions and combinations to form and fire.
Respect will be the keystone starting point, infused with improved timing, anticipation and an affection for each other enough to walk through walls together.
All of which takes time.
Granted, and with the greatest respect, a stronger squad on paper when compared to squads of only a couple of seasons back, the fact is, they ain’t done nothing yet.
And that’s where middle-men recruits like David Klemmer, James Gavet, and Tim Glasby come in.
Theirs is a less complicated responsibility compared to their teammates but remains the bedrock of success. Get the job done there and the game rewards.
The backline, likewise, looks handy on paper.
If the forwards provide the time and space, guys like Edrick Lee, Jesse Ramien, Hymel Hunt and Shaun Kenny-Dowall will deliver the bullion.
Then there is the “spine”. Fullback-elect Connor Watson joins Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce and Danny Levi (and Kurt Mann) as the generals in charge, at least for the opening salvos.
A handy line-up in anyone’s language.
The trick, as with all teams is to keep these guys together for as long as possible. Keep them fresh, happy and out of the physio’s room and we could do anything in 2019.
Strap yourself in. Knights by two.
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